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Investing in Your (Food) Economy

13 Jun

As I begin my preparations for yet another move (this will be my seventh in as many years), and begin the process of integrating myself into yet another new community, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of investment. The various paths to community.

The very first thing I do now when I know my new location is search out the good food options — is there a co-op? What’s the farmer’s market situation? What kind of CSA options might exist in my price range? My favorite resource to start looking (as I tend to also move great distances, and so must take the first steps remotely) is the great website Local Harvest, with a complex searchable database.

My new location appears to have a lot to offer by way of good food opportunities — no co-op, but lots of markets in the area, all of which run into the fall and offer links to local producers who offer shares into the winter months as well. I’m excited by the prospects and availability. I’m thrilled to get to buy meat directly from producers, to once again have my choices of leafy greens, to taste what the grass of Pennsylvania tastes like (via the cheeses!).

And I’m feeling somewhere in my chest the best and least tangible of all the benefits of local food — the ways in which participating in a local food economy makes you feel a part of the community.

Some of it is simple and direct, in that you meet more people at a farmer’s market than in a grocery store. And of course, you feel safer knowing and seeing where your food came from. You feel you’ve made less of an environmental impact. But there is a pride to handing your money over to another member of the community that immediately draws you into that intricate web of people and place.

There is a very real economic benefit to spending your food dollars locally. Local spending boosts a community’s overall income level, as it helps create local jobs, and as local producers will tend to spend their profits locally, too. And this time, I’m finding that my tendency to support local food markets is drawing me further into the community overall.

I research local food options in advance of a move so that  I don’t become complacent — so that I don’t just make that first grocery trip, quick and easy, to the mega-chain in town. And now, this time, I don’t want to let myself do that anywhere. It’s so easy, when you move, to stick to the familiar. To run to Target for those basics, instead of checking out the local Main Street general store (yes, those places do still exist!), or to swing by Best Buy or Barnes & Noble instead of finding the local — even if used! — book or record store. To open your new bank account at the national for-profit institution that played a crucial role in the current global recession rather than joining a credit union.

Nowhere do we fall more prey to this than food. On road trips, we stop at rest area McDonald’s, rather than drive off the beaten path to find a local diner. We eat at Applebee’s and call it “the neighborhood bar and grill.” But we rob ourselves of the opportunity to discover the wonderful specificity of our place by directing our investments to the branded, the familiar.

The financial rewards of a local investment — in food or music, books or banking — pay emotional dividends. The joy of discovering the character of your community, the taste of the soil, the personalities of zip codes. I know it all sounds very old-world romantic, very Little House on the Prairie, but it’s true. You may never become friends with the people of your co-op, but you leave that store with a purchase knowing you have invested in more than a profit. You have invested in a place, and that makes it  yours.

Organic Spinach Recall

1 Jun

The other day, I was checking out at the grocery store, and when I swiped my shopper’s club card, the cashier told me there was a recall notice that would print out on my receipt.

When I got the receipt, it turned out that the brand of packaged organic baby spinach I buy on pretty much every trip was being recalled for a potential salmonella contamination. I could bring the package back to the store for a full refund.

By the time I got the recall notice, the package of spinach was already empty and in my trash, so as you may guess based on the measured nature of this post, I did not, in fact, get salmonella. Since the contamination can cause nausea, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, etc. I think I would have noticed. But of course, this brings up some interesting issues to ponder here.

First, yes, even organic vegetables are in danger of becoming contaminated. For those who haven’t heard about the salmonella spinach, listeria cantaloupe, etc. of the last year or so, a brief refresher: many packaged produce products are handled at the same facilities, or shipped in the same trucks, that transmit contaminated meat products or animals, which are rarely cleaned. All it takes is one trip for potential contamination to occur.

Second, and larger, this is an important wake-up call for someone like me. I’m stuck in a situation where I resort to buying pre-packaged organic produce shipped in from distant ports (or, you know, California). And it’s important to remember that’s truly not the same thing as buying organic, local produce. Produce from a small-scale farm that doesn’t use chemicals. A farm with a small staff and easily-observable hygiene standards. A farm far from the potential contamints of the larger food industry because it’s not a part of that industry, but rather a part of a local foodshed. Produce from people whose hands I can shake.

Oh, how I wish all the produce was that kind of produce. Until we get there as a nation, let’s all of us, individually, remember to prioritize the local and transparent above all else, and not be lulled into the false sense of security a USDA organic label can give us. Organic is vitally important, especially from a larger environmental perspective, but organic can still be industrial.

Basically, the reminder here is to wash your veggies, even if you buy organic (whether for this reason, or just ot rinse of the lovely local dirt that comes with fresh farmer’s market produce!), and to keep yourself in the loop to advocate for stricter health and safety standards on a food industry way out of control.

A Conversation on Meat-Eating

30 May

A few months ago, a reader of We*Meat*Again named Heather sent me the first email below — a proposition…

I think being vegan is the ideal diet, and you disagree. Therefore, I have a fun proposal if you are up for it.

I would like to discuss the ethics of eating meat with you over email. We can go back and forth for a little while. Then, I’ll post the debate on a blog that I haven’t created yet. You can do the same at your blog.

I loved the idea of letting our ethics play out in conversation form, as it was a long series of conversations I had several years ago that led me back towards meat-eating. It wasn’t an issue or singular decision, so I thought this would be a great way to represent the myriad perspectives on the ethics of eating meat. Enjoy!


I’ll start off with animals. After all, protecting animals is the main reason I am vegan.

I think it is very important to protect animals from harm. They are defenseless, and we have the power to do anything to them that we want. But might does not make right.

Animals raised for food are almost all kept in factory farms where they are confined in tiny cages. Egg laying hens can’t even flap their wings and they stay in those cages for up to two years. Breeding pigs are kept in stalls so small they can’t even turn around.

A lot of suffering goes into producing meat, and it’s not neven a necessary food.


I have a tangential thought, based on what you mentioned below about animals being defenseless. Of course, I know you mean domesticated livestock animals, but I wonder how this view of our obligation to protect animals might impact your views on hunting? Wild animals are certainly not defenseless, and defend themselves against predators all the time. But back to your initial thoughts…

As you mention, almost all animals raised for food are kept in extremely inhumane conditions. I completely agree, and this was the primary reason I had for becoming a vegetarian myself many years ago. I can’t abide those conditions and do not want to be a part of them. However, there is a small, and growing movement of much more small-scale humane conditions for raising animals. I’ve met and befriended many farmers and ranchers who treat their animals with love and kindness, who raise them in healthy, free-roaming conditions and who ensure their deaths are as pain- and fear-free as possible.

My view is that I can affect more positive change in the current food system by choosing to invest my meat-dollars by supporting those new, emerging models of agriculture than I can by opting out or boycotting the existing system.

There’s a lot to explore in the idea that meat isn’t a necessary food, too, but I’ll stay on topic for now…


I don’t think many animals that are hunted are able to defend themselves against hunters. Doves come to mind, as do ducks, rabbits, etc. but that’s a different issue.

I think those farms that don’t use factory farm methods are an improvement, but they still kill the animals. There is still suffering. For example, male pigs are still castrated. I think it’s an improvement, and for people who refuse to go vegetarian it’s a good alternative. But for those willing to go all the way, isn’t it preferable to not have any animals killed for the dinner plate?

Why kill if we don’t need to?


The question at stake for me here is: what system of eating is without suffering? I think a lot of vegans and vegetarians are mistaken in the assumption that by not eating the body of an animal, they are avoiding participating in death or suffering.

A few examples: Most mainstream meat substitute products, including boxed products like Boca burgers, or tofu, are subsidiary brands produced by major multinational corporations. Boca is owned by Kraft, which also owns Oscar Meyer. Yves and Tofutown are owned by Heinz, which also owns several frozen meal brands, made with chicken contracted through Tyson (one of the worst-of-the-worst when it comes to inhumane and pollutive CAFOs).

Even on the smaller scale (for organic, locavore vegans and vegetarians) the very act of growing food often results in death. Even the most low-till farming methods neccesarily kill worms. Even the most natural pest-avoidance will likely cause the deaths of insects. And these are not non-sentient beings (I’ve always hated when people accuse vegetarians of “killing plants” — that’s just not the same thing). These are living creatures, many of which can experience pain, and have an equal right to life as a human, or a chicken, or a pig.

And so, if death is unavoidable in the process of growing and consuming food, I believe it makes the most ethical sense to be honest about it. To acknowledge the suffering I cause (in my case, in the form of an animal’s death) so that I can most responsibly invest my food dollars with producers who I know seek to actively minimize suffering.


I don’t agree that worms are equal to intelligent species like pigs, just like I don’t agree that pigs are equal to humans. However, let’s take your argument at face value. Assume that raising 8lbs of soybeans causes X number of worms and other insects to die. We can eat that 8lbs of soybeans directly and the number of insects dead is X. Or, we can feed that soy to a pig and get 1lb of meat. A farmer feeds roughly 8lbs of feed to a pig to get a pound of pork. So if we ate the vegetarian food directly, it stands to reason there would be 8 times less insects killed than in a form of food production where those crops are filtered through a pig first.

I don’t think buying vegetarian foods from a company that also sells meat is anything like buying meat from a company that sells meat. If anything, buying the vegetarian food shows these companies that there is profit to be made in plant based foods. Those companies are not going away. But if they see there is profit to be made by producing more ethical foods, that is a good thing.

So, in closing, one kills less insects that would be harmed in crop production if they eat the crops directly. Also, showing multinational corporations there is profit to be made by producing more ethical foods is a good thing.

I think those points reinforce the argument for vegetarianism.


The flaw in the mathematical equations or soy, or corn, to meat production is that vegetarian food isn’t just soybeans. It, too, requires processing, and a balanced diet requires produce, which takes more land to grow, etc. So it’s difficult, if not impossible, to suggest that such a correlation between # of worms killed for one pound of vegetarian food is less than # of worms killed for one pound of pig. Especially because that equation still only takes into consideration animals fed a grown diet, as opposed to free-range animals.

But those small logistics aside, the more important thing is to note that we all — whether we eat meat or not — make a distinction between certain kinds of life. You acknowledge a worm > pig > human hierarchy, and the existence of such a hierarchy suggests that even vegans don’t necessarily have a problem with knowing some life died to create their food. That is much the same as my take. The real question is, why do we consider some life forms acceptable deaths and others unacceptable?

My issue with buying vegetarian foods from a company that also raises meat is that I don’t separate all those forms of suffering out. I accept that much destruction (of the earth), death and suffering (of animals, farmworkers, etc.) comes along with the process of any species attempting to feed itself. I try to minimize my participation in that suffering, because I look at the whole picture. I would rather buy a free-range, antibiotic-free, humanely-slaughtered side of beef from a local farmer who treats his workers with respect than a box of industrially-produced, long-distance, GMO-based meat substitute product from a parent corporation responsible for labor rights, clean air/water, and animals rights, violations.

If some people are vegan or vegetarian because they simply cannot stomach the idea of eating the flesh of a dead animal, I can wholeheartedly accept that. I just think it’s a personal choice, not one that, when judged in terms of the food system as a whole, is in and of itself morally superior.


Ok, I had not thought about produce requiring more to grow. But how could tree fruit affect worms in the ground? I don’t think it can.

Plus, there is no question people have lower rates of heart disease as vegetarians.


It’s certainly true that people have lower rates of heart disease (and many other chronic health conditions) as vegetarians. But that’s because the only studies up to this point have compared a diet without meat to a diet of industrially-produced meat (even including processed meat like bologna or spam. ick.).

I’m all in favor of reducing our meat consumption as a nation dramatically. Americans far over-eat protein in general, and are especially fans of red meat, which is especially bad for the heart. But I think a diet that emphasizes fresh, whole foods and produce can include some meat and still be very healthy. In fact, the studies that have been done thus far suggest that many of the health issues associated with meat are a uniquely-industrial problem. So if we are supporting sustainable, chemical-free sources of meat, we can avoid many of those health problems.


Ok, that’s an interesting rebuttal.

We agree meat consumption should be reduced.

Basically I think there are 3 main reasons to be vegetarian, and they are:

1. There is no question that animals suffer greatly in factory farms. Anytime one buys a chicken sandwich, they are supporting that. Even when people say they eat free range meat, if they go to a restaurant or eat meat at a cookout, they are likely eating factory farmed meat. I don’t believe that people who say they exclusively eat free range meat really exclusively do. If they are telling the truth then they must eat vegetarian meals most of the time.

Even with free range meat, an animal is still killed for something unnecessary. Of course we are talking about animals like pigs, which are as intelligent as dogs. Chickens, turkeys, cows; they all are intelligent enough and aware enough to suffer and to be aware of their misery, pain and fear as they go down the slaughter line. I don’t think we can say that about worms. In fact, you can even cut a worm in half and it becomes two worms. Slice a chicken in half and she is dead.

Lastly, with grass fed cows, if we were to eat as much meat tomorrow as we do today, and all the cows are grass fed, we’d use half the country for grazing.

2. Clearly a vegetarian or vegan diet is healthier than eating meat. You did a good job of refuting my heart disease argument, but vegetarians do live longer than meat eaters on average. We have lower rates of stroke, lower obesity and all the problems that come with that, etc.

3. Meat production is an environmental catastrophe. So many more resources go into growing feed to feed to animals, and then raising, transporting and slaughtering the animals than if one just eats crops directly. There is also the issue of manure run off contaminating soil, water and air in rural communities. So much petro fertilizer has to be used to raise feed crops. It’s just a mess.

The three points together make a strong argument for being vegetarian.


I have some responses to your three points individually, and then to the underlying assumption.

1. You’re absolutely right that choosing not to eat factory-farmed meat means absconding from meat in many situations (thought not at all restaurants), but I wouldn’t go so far as to say “most of the time.” Most of my meals are eaten at home, cooked by me. But to assume they are lying, or misinformed, isn’t necessary. You don’t have to believe they are always eating sustainable meat any more than they need to believe you are always reading ingredients list and never accidentally eating chicken fat or beef byproduct in your soup, crackers, etc.

The idea that the animal is being killed for something “unnecessary” is part of the problem I have. If an animal dies in any process of growing food (and somehow, somewhere along the line, I do believe that happens, whether worms and insects or animals slaughtered by parent companies of vegetarian products), then what kind of death is “unnecessary.” They are all, in some way, going towards a person’s eating. Couldn’t we take the next logical step and say it’s not “necessary” for humans to live any more than animals? Of course, such a position wouldn’t work. If death is inevitable, no death is unnecessary — but there is such a thing as an inhumane death or a death that happens in a way that isn’t necessary.

2. My response to the argument that vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters is the same as my response for heart disease — only because the only available data matches vegetarian against modern-day, red-meat-heavy, industrially-produced-meat eater. Vegetarian versus low-consumption, sustainable-produced, chemical-free meat-eater would look different. They may well be equal.

My response to your third point, about the environmental consequences of meat production, is similar to my response to your note about grass-fed cattle. Along with agreeing meat consumption should be reduced, we both agree on all the negatives of the current factory farming system. But if you add reducing meat consumption to attempting to reverse, undo, or change the industrial system, you can create a small-scale, sustainable system that produces less meat on less land using integrative practices that feed and fertilize the land, without the massive pollutive consequences of a factory farm. I’ve chosen to invest in the creation of that system, rather than just boycott the existing one.

At this point in our exchange, Heather threw in the towel, and admitted I had successfully rebutted all of her reasons for strict vegetarianism. I’ll close with my final response to her, which is the most important take-away:

My intention is never to get people to stop being vegetarians — just to start being more conscientious of the fact that the line between ethical/unethical eating doesn’t necessarily fall along vegetarian/meat-eating lines.

Artist as Activist

25 May

A recent interview in The New York Times with world-known chefs Thomas Keller and Andoni Luis Aduriz has caused a bit of a ruckus in the good food movement. For within this article, the two chefs suggest that for them, perfecting their craft of foodsmanship comes before any efforts towards improved sourcing or sustainability of that food. An example:

“Is global food policy truly our responsibility, or in our control?” [Keller] asked. “I don’t think so.”

“I agree completely, and it is a brave answer,” came immediately from Mr. Aduriz. “Of course I buy as many things as I can nearby,” he said. “But to align yourself entirely with the idea of sustainability makes chefs complacent and limited.”

Paula Crossfield has a strong rebuttal to that notion over at Civil Eats, wherein she argues that “the locavore movement is not a trend easily dismissed, but part of a greater paradigm shift around how we view and value resources.”

But here in this post, I would like to look at Aduriz’ accusation that locavorism limits chefs. By aligning “complacent” with “limited,” it sounds to me as if these chefs believe that the constraints of sourcing locally, or with a small carbon footprint (and, we could presumably add, with an eye towards the humane treatment of animals), places constraints on the chef-as-artist. Limited, as in, it limits our creativity. Our ability to achieve wondrous and spectacular things on the plate.

I absolutely think that great chefs are artists. I come from a family with three daughters — I am a writer, and my sisters are a photographer and a pastry chef. We are, all three of us, artists. Caitlin, the chef, (who works at this awesome farm-to-table restaurant in San Diego’s little Italy neighborhood!) can create shapes with fondant that I cannot with words.

And any good artist will tell you that often, our best work is done within constraints.

This is why poets experiment in sijo and ghazals and sonnets. This is why I try lyric and collage style essays, why I limit myself to writing nonfiction.

Anyone can create when you have all of the world’s resources at your fingertips, an endless amount of money, and a blank canvas — because anything you put on that canvas will be art. True artists thrive within boundaries, adhering to prompts. Because that is when creating art becomes a challenge, which is the only reason any of us make art.

The absolute best meals I’ve ever eaten were at locally-sourced restaurants (although, to be fair, Keller’s French Laundry is way above my pay-grade, so this isn’t a direct comparison). Of course, the food was delicious — I almost wept when I took the first bite of my lamb bolognese at Minneapolis’ Craftsman restaurant. But the meal was more wonderful because of the fact that it was locally sourced and sustainable. They made rabbit delicious! There were pickled ramps in the slaw! The salted caramel ice cream had been made right there in house!

This was food as art made more impressive by the limitations and constraints, the boundaries the chefs had been forced to challenge, the ways in which they had stretched themselves, and improved their craft by virtue of working within those limitations.

Nothing complacent about it.

The Kashi Controversy, Or, Know ALL Your Farmers

27 Apr

A weird new trend is springing up on the internet,  a trend I think of as “viral images.” Not videos. Just single photos that twelve or seventeen of my Facebook friends will post in a 24-hour window. Yesterday’s was the image below, of some Rhode Island grocery store’s sign explaining their decision to stop stocking Kashi.

I promise I’m going to work very hard to make sure the rest of this post doesn’t come off as a lecture. I know a lot of people — you, me, us, the average consumer — may genuinely not be aware of the Kashi-GMO connection, or any of the others that I will detail here. But an organic grocery store just now finding out? Ok, nevermind that.

So I take this as a teachable moment, and the teach is this (in case you don’t feel like reading the rest of the post): All processed food should be treated as suspect.

This doesn’t mean all processed food is bad. But it does mean we need to start changing our definition of “processed.” Most people tend to think that if a food is labeled as organic, natural, containing all-natural ingredients, containing no artificial ingredients, containing whole grains, etc etc etc. then that’s good enough.

But I tend to judge food based on the package it comes in. If you can pick up the ingredient by itself (like a vegetable or piece of fruit) you’re golden. If it’s in a box, a bag, or the freezer section, you should start checking ingredients lists. Sometimes you will find just one or two things — still golden! Frozen fruits and veggies, a bag of plain pita chips, etc.

The real lesson to me, of the Kashi controversy though, is not the length of the ingredients list. The presence of GMO ingredients, as of right now, is not a labelling requirement, so you wouldn’t see those by reading the package. The reason I wasn’t surprised by this revelation from Kashi (aside from knowing about it for some time) is that I know Kashi is owned by Kellogg’s.

Click to view image larger

Yes. Kellogg’s, the 12th largest food processing company in the world. Producer of many fine sugary cereals, currently lobbying against the FDA’s voluntary regulatory guidelines for marketing those same cereal to children Kellogg’s. Kellogg’s, who also, by the way, owns MorningStar and Gardenburger brands.

Like I said, I’m not here to lecture, or to wag my finger and say you should’ve known better.

Because I didn’t used to know either.

Here’s how I wrote about my moment of discovery in The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat:

Boca burger, according to their website, was founded in the 1970s by a chef determined to make the vegetarian hamburger taste good. What the website doesn’t mention is that Boca was acquired in 2000 by Kraft Foods, the largest food processing company in North America. Up until 2007, Kraft was owned by Altria Group—the new and improved name of the public-relations challenged Phillip Morris, USA.

When I started picking away at the corporate connections in the food industry, I began to feel like an internet crazy. The more I dug, the more I convinced myself maybe I was just making mountains out of molehills—maybe I was looking too hard for something not really there. Maybe it didn’t have to be so hard. Maybe I could just turn away, go back to my old, easy vegetarian diet.

Until I read that in 2001, a U.S. jury ordered Philip Morris to pay three billion dollars in damages to a smoker suffering terminal cancer, a landmark legal victory for the anti-tobacco movement. Phillip Morris appealed the decision, but the next week they went out and raised nine billion dollars, by selling just 16 percent of Kraft Foods. Suddenly, my purchase of a Boca Burger, supposedly free from the stains of corporate greed, just went to helping an evil tobacco corporation from sinking into bankruptcy.

The point is: if the all natural brand is owned by the same multinational corporation that makes the mainstream product you are avoiding, you have reason to distrust their ingredients list, their treatment of workers and animals, and their environmental record.

When I said something like this on Facebook yesterday,  my friend Lindsey made a good point in asking what this all actually means. How can we tell which brands are “good” and which are “evil”? Or at least, which to actually buy.

My short answer there, was, half-jokingly: Organic/natural foods are not all made on communal love-farms.

But the good, well-developed answer isn’t that you must simply avoid any and all corporate products. I still buy mayonnaise and pasta that have been industrially-produced. But being aware of the corporate connections and therefore, potential health, safety, and environmental issues for even our “natural” food products is important if for no other reason than it reinforces an emphasis on whole foods, and on foods made with our own hands, as much as possible.

What are your thoughts on the Kashi controversy? Did any of the connections on the chart above surprise you? Do you remember your moment of realization? Leave a comment and share your story with us!

Readers Respond: Why It’s (Un)Ethical to Eat Meat

18 Apr

Last week, I posted some of my thoughts on Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat. I got some really interesting comments on that post that I wanted to respond to, and thought I would share my responses in a new post, to keep the conversation going.

Michael writes:

Indeed suffering is an inevitable part of simply being a living organism, but you’re rationalizing unnecessary suffering on the grounds that it’s impossible to eliminate it completely. This is simply not cogent. We can’t eliminate crime completely, but this is no argument for doing away with law enforcement altogether.

My response: The first part of this I have to object to is the idea of unnecessary suffering. While most of us in the developed world have the luxury of choosing our diet, if suffering is inevitable for any species to feed itself, how can we define any suffering as “unnecessary?” I simply don’t think it’s fair for any single person to make a determination of necessity for any other eater.

But I believe that by participating in the models of meat production I do, that I’m working towards reducing suffering — not just throwing up my hands and giving up. To extend the law enforcement metaphor, my thought process is akin to an argument to change law enforcement policy. Admitting that our current system of raising animals is inhumane, and therefore participating in an alternative system to support it’s growth is like saying “the war on drugs isn’t working so let’s try legalization.”

You refer to “humane” meat. Human means to have compassion or benevolence. How is unnecessary termination of life compassionate? It’s simply not.

My response: Well, “humane” meat is just my term for the standards I ask my livestock producers to adhere to — it’s not any kind of universal standard. But by your own definition, humane can also mean benevolent, a term that usually applies to those who demonstrate respect for the power they wield over others. Given that humans domesticated livestock animals, I think we can all agree we are in a position of power over them. To be benevolent is to treat them with respect, and to care for them in a way that honors what they truly are and have to offer us. I believe my methods for supporting animal agriculture do so.

You cite environmental reasons for low impact animal ag. Eliminating animal ag would eliminate all of the environmental impacts altogether. It also would allow for much more efficient use of land for ag and for other purposes.

My response: Actually, there are several flaws in evidence there. First, any kind of agriculture has an environmental impacts. Growing produce impacts the land by tilling it, and inorganic produce growth involves spraying it with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. So eliminating animal ag would not eliminate all environmental impacts — it would just reduce them, or change them. In addition, biodynamic, integrative models for animal ag can actually have a positive environmental impact by producing greater natural fertilizers and pesticides, reducing the need for synthetics.

The argument that a diet without meat is “more efficient” is also only true based on our current system of agriculture. Since most of the land impact of animal ag comes from the corn grown to feed cattle, yes, of course that land could be put to better use. But in some regions, grazing cattle or other animals is a more efficient substitute for that corn than growing produce for vegetarian diets. In the Northeastern United States, for example, most soil is too rocky and uneven for planting, so there are limited small amounts of produce that can be grown there. Combining those small-scale models with grazing cattle allows for more food to be produced on the same land, and keeps food production fully local, creating a negative carbon footprint.

I’m afraid your arguments are rationalizations for morally unjustifiable normative practices.

My response: In a larger sense, I think it’s important for us all to realize that what is “morally just,” unless aligned with a legal system, is an individual decision (much as many of us would like it not to be). I hope to help people grapple with these ideas, and certainly have my own sense of morality — but I also understand and appreciate that we all have our own moral compass. I’m not a moral relativist, but I have made my decisions based on morality. It’s unfair for anyone to assume that my ulterior motives are to rationalize normative behavior — it’s not that I just wanted a cheeseburger.

Mijnheer writes:

You also claim that “the basic ethical defense of vegetarianism is utilitarian in nature.” Many vegetarians/vegans abstain from meat for a deontological reason — i.e., respect for the right of the individual animal to lead its own life, which is violated when it is used simply as a means for the ends of others. There are also ethical reasons of a feminist or ecological nature for abstaining from meat. For example:

My response: You’re absolutely right that there are other ethical defenses for vegetarianism, though feminist and ecological perspectives are gender-based and ecological arguments which have responses in those realms, not in the realm of philosophical ethics.

But my understanding of deontologics is Kantian in nature, wherein an action is morally permissible if the harm caused is less than the greater good, and if the action is driven by motivations towards a duty to do good. One of the weaknesses of deontologics is the idea of the “conflict of two goods.” Imagining that the question of debate between vegetarianism and support of sustainable meat production is a conflict of two goods. The former avoids direct contribution to animal death but may include indirect support of those deaths by financial investment, as well as in the suffering of workers whose consumer pesticides and other chemicals in slave-labor conditions on produce farms, and in the ecological impacts of large-scale agriculture, even when organic. The latter involves direct support of a smaller number of animal deaths in exchange for the elimination of the latter — and that is why I believe the latter is the choice that does more good than the harm is causes.

I have to say I’m rather bemused by your argument, which seems to amount to: Let’s actively participate in causing suffering so that we can help minimize it.

My response: In fact, my argument is that we all already participate in causing suffering. I try to keep We Meat Again food-focused, but the truth is, this goes outside the bounds of simply our diets in that we all make moral trade-off decisions every day. Most of us drive cars, even if we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Most of us buy clothes whose origins we can’t always trace, but still object to child labor in factories. Most of us consume chemicals, fossil fuels, and the results of the suffering of others — people and animals — on a daily basis.

Because of this, I have made the decision to take active steps towards acknowledging the existence of my participation in suffering, so that I might try to minimize it. The first step for me is facing the deaths of the animals for my food. Somehow, animals die for us all to eat, whether we consume their flesh or not. I am going to give those animals the honor of looking at them, head-on.

I’d love to hear what you all think (whether an original commenter on the post or not!) Above all, I hope we can keep things civil, but I think this question is at the underpinning of what I’m trying to do here on We Meat Again, and I want to hear as many voices as I can. Leave a comment, drop me an email, tweet at me — and let’s keep the conversation going.

Hope & Fear in the New Food World

14 Mar

The weather’s turning warm here, warm enough that it’s actually freaking me out a little. Kansan temperatures will get into the 80s this week, and for a child of New England, with its April snow days, a girl of the mountains with snow caps all year round — I can’t help but feel the warmth as a harbinger of the new world, the post-climate change world, in which the havoc we have wrecked is upon us.

But still, there is so much joy in warm weather, in windows open, rolled down, sleeves up, legs bare. As I walked home from school this afternoon, sweating lightly in my short-sleeved dress, I thought about holding on to this dual sense of hope and doom, the equal promise of spring and the fear of global warming. And I thought about food.

I thought of how food offers us both the same reasons to be both hopeful and afraid. Nearly every day, stories pass in front of my eyes that give me cause to shake my head with indignation. Stories about pink slime (demystified well here) and locust-like plagues of corn rootworm from GE seeds. This is the stuff of apocalypse — and that statement grows less hyperbolic each day, in a world where whole countries are relocating to avoid the effects of climate change.

But there is cause for hope, too. There are myriad stories of good news, like the slow and long-overdue phasing-out of the pork gestation crate. But more than tangible, hard news, I see mounting evidence of a sea change in the way people think of food.

I see hope in Seattle, where the city plans to construct a seven-acre public-access food forest.

I see hope in central Iowa, where customers at my old co-op can now buy locally-grown aquaponic tilapia, and the greens fertilized with their waste.

I even see hope in the Twitter debate over banning pink slime from school lunches — where even those from the beef industry are forced to refer to the substance as pink slime, which they would prefer we call “lean finely-texture beef.” Just as with the — in my view — failure of the corn industry’s rebranding campaign of high fructose corn syrup as corn sugar, people are no longer fooled.

We are no longer fooled and we no longer want to be. We know there is much to be afraid of in the world of food – or in this unseasonably warm March weather. But we refuse any longer to turn away from what those dangerous signs are telling us. That is cause for hope — but soon, we must turn it into action.

Potato Leek Soup

15 Feb

A few weeks ago, I wrote about celebrating winter with winter flavors. Since then, we’ve seen a recipe for kale pesto, and today, a hearty, creamy soup chock full of root vegetables.

Leeks are my vegetable nemesis. I like leeks, enjoy their rich, onion flavor. I also think they look quite lovely. But some of my biggest flops in the kitchen have involved leeks. Their flavor is so strong, and turns so quickly and easily. I once tried to adapt a sweet potato and leek tart with, I think, potatoes, cheese, orange peppers and leeks. Maybe the grossest thing I’ve ever tried to eat. I think we ordered pizza that night.

So this time, I went with a tried-and-true combo instead of re-inventing the wheel. I’d never made potato leek soup before, but I’ve eaten and enjoyed it many times. I found this recipe from Bon Appetit, and stuck by it to the letter.

The verdict? Delicious, if time-consuming. While you do have to put in the prep time to chop lots of veggies, the simmer time to tenderize them, and then the rotating puree into a blender, this creamy soup also has the additional step of returning to the pot for added cheesiness. Once again, I found myself longing for an immersion blender. Maybe my next kitchen investment.

All that said, if you have the time, this soup is a great way to warm the kitchen on a cool winter Sunday night. Serve with crusty bread, mix in a few gnocchi for texture, or swirl in some of that pesto, and warm your insides, too.

What are your favorite winter recipes, or vegetables to feature in the colder months? Leave a comment and share your favorite roots with all of us!

How Does Your Garden Grow?

9 Feb

I’ve never been a gardener.

I know. It seems like someone who rants and raves about fresh food, and the joys of vegetables as much as I do should really have a little patch of her own, right? But the truth is, I’m a terrible plant steward, so I’ve never bothered to try and grow my own food. I’ve mentioned kitchen fails before on the blog. But when it comes to plant fails — nobody’s got me beat. I once killed a plant that was in my care for a single afternoon. Seriously.

But a few weeks ago, my friend Amy mentioned to me that she’d love to see a blog post about how to plant in her enclosed porch, and I got to thinking that maybe this was the year to give it a shot.

I’ve begun doing research for the kinds of planting options that might work for my living arrangements (renting a house with little direct sunlight, but a shared backyard), and here’s what I’ve learned so far. I’ll be blogging my gardening journey as I grow, too, and promise more pictures once the process is underway.

What to Grow

For the smallest, easiest, least amount of indoor effort, it seems an herb garden, which you can grow in small pots on a windowsill with good light, is the best bet. Herebs grow easily indoors, and take up very little space.

But there are plenty of vegetables to grow indoors, too. The easiest seem to be…

  • Lettuce is fast growing, requires less light than other vegetables and is really healthy! I love a variety of mixed greens, so I’m excited about this prospect.
  • Tomatoes and Peppers need lots of full sunlight, so they can be trickier indoors, but the right varieties (small-fruited) and the right lighting choices make them possible, especially since they like especially warm temperatures.
  • Radishes and Carrots grow relatively quickly indoors, with the right technique

There are also all sorts of options for indoor sprouted seeds, such as corn, barley, alfalfa, lentil, etc.

Where to Grow

  • Indoor growing requires containers. You can be pretty creative with containers, as long as they will hold soil and stand up to watering.
  • You have to especially make sure to have provisions for draining the containers as you are watering them — whereas outdoors, you can just let the water pool out, indoors, that might mean a puddle in your kitchen, so a small pan around the pot to catch excess water seems a good idea.
  • Since containers hold a smaller amount of soil, you will likely need to water more frequently.
  • Some people have experimented with using hanging baskets, as certain small fruited plants have varieties developed for growth in those containers.
  • The advantages of containers, though, are great. First, you can be creative & colorful, using recycled materials and interesting yard sale finds. Plus, the containers are easily transportable, so you can maximize your plant’s light exposure.

Even if you don’t have so much as a windowsill, you may be able to garden. Check out community garden options in your area — a fun, social opportunity as well as a way to get fresh veggies. You could even give guerrilla gardening a shot!

How to Grow/How not to Kill and Destroy

When it comes right down to it, the basic requirements for plants to grow big and strong are soil, light, water and nutrients (yes, I have to start out that basic). For each plant and variety, make sure to research the specific needs, modify and meet those needs with your container and location, and take it from there. I have found a lot of good info so far from this Virginia Tech Extension website, and plan to gather specific as I go.

Overall, it seems to me that gardening is a lot like baking: if you have to take one of those things out (say, you can’t get direct sunlight), find a way to replace it (with a clamp-on shop light for example). Don’t be afraid to play around, do some research, and decide what works for your space. As always, feel free to drop me an email to ask a question — we’re in this one together!

What are your tips and tricks for successful gardening — indoor or out? Any advice or pitfalls to avoid for new, inexperienced, or horrifically disastrous gardeners? Leave a comment and share your wisdom, green thumbs! Or, if you’re a black thumb like me, ask a question and see what our We*Meat*Again community has for you!

Nibbles: What We Didn’t Eat This Week

3 Feb

Quite a variety of happenings in the world of food this week.

The Good

An illuminating new report out by the cooking & nutrition charity Share Our Strength provides concrete evidence that low-income families do cook at home more often than they eat fast food, and would like to be able to do so even more. I like Marion Nestle’s coverage, as she’s not afraid to nod towards some of the corporate influence the report contains. Good news, nonetheless.

Colorado is considering a state-wide ban on trans-fats in school lunch programs. Colorado is also, interestingly, the least-obese state in the nation (you can’t really say “thinnest” in a country where obesity is over 30% across the board). Coincidence?

In more school lunch reform news, the USDA announced this week its new rules (yes, actual rules here) that will increase the amounts of fruits and vegetables, and eliminate some meat requirements in its school lunch program. As Mark Bittman says, imperfect as the new rules may be, 32 million kids are about to start eating better.

Jane Black has a nice piece in The Washington Post discussing the rise in flexible CSA options. While I think her editorial brushes off the consumer benefits of a regular CSA too dismissively, I’ve loved my past flexible CSAs for the access they provided someone who couldn’t afford a full share.

The Bad

This article isn’t bad so much as slightly annoying. A new study out of the Washington State University purports to help reform the beef industry’s image by claiming cattle ranches are significantly more environmentally-friendly than thirty years ago. File under — yes, and…?

I mentioned one lawsuit Monsanto is currently facing. Here is another! A class-action case that claims the company spread toxic substances all over a town in West Virginia in the course of producing a chemical component of Agent Orange. The toxic substances listed are mainly dioxins, which have been linked to cancer.

and the (very) Ugly

The Humane Society of the United States (which has, in the last few years, done a really impressive job ramping up its advocacy of livestock animals along with homeless pets) released a new undercover video documenting standard pork industry practice for raising pigs.

Graphic images included.

Tom Philpott’s analysis cuts to the core:

The remarkable thing…is how banal it is. What we have here is the everyday reality of pigs’ lives on a factory farm, without regulations flouted or spectacular violence committed. It is abuse routinized and regimented, honed into a profitable business model.

The video even got NYTimes sustainability blogger Andrew Revkin interested. He’s got a response from the Oklahoma Pork Council (which suggests that images were “taken out of context,” leaving me to ask — is there a context in which these practices are acceptable?) and takes the opportunity to wonder if this might continue to make the case for test-tube meat. Not if the omnivores here on We*Meat*Again have anything to say about it, right?

Happy Weekend, All!



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